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Editorial: A Republican Rout - But What Next?

Last week, most of the attention in the American political world was on the biggest, most significant election of this year. In Virginia, a new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general would be elected along with a new legislature. The Republican Party has controlled the state’s House of Delegates for several years and more recently, the state Senate as well. But before the election, Democrats held the top three offices that were being contested last week. Spending on the campaign shattered previous records, as both national political parties sought to win a key race.

On the eve of the election, many observers saw a late Republican surge and viewed the election as too close to call. But against the apparent flow of voter sentiment leading up to the contest, last week’s election was a rout.

In what was widely interpreted as a comprehensive repudiation of the inept, corrupt and polarising administration of Donald Trump, Virginia voters handed a huge nine point victory in the governor’s race to the folksy, relatively uncharismatic incumbent lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam. An African American was chosen as the new lieutenant governor, and the current attorney general was re-elected. Perhaps even more significant, the GOP advantage in the lower House of Delegates was trimmed to no more than one seat, and recounts and absentee balloting may in coming weeks eliminate that edge altogether.

In the wake of the Virginia blowout, the Boston Globe ran a cartoon depicting the GOP elephant drowning, weighed down by an anchor featuring the face of Trump. It was apt. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, after distancing himself from Trump for much of the campaign, adopted Trumpian tactics in the closing weeks of the race. The GOP financed political ads even many conservatives condemned as hateful and misleading. This strategy failed, comprehensively.

Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War and the scene of many of its most critical, bloody battles, had been reliably Democratic for decades until passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson while the subsequent adoption by Richard Nixon of the Republican party’s Southern Strategy shifted the ground under the nation’s politics. Then, 45 years ago, the Republicans became the party of segregation and, increasingly, bigotry. Nixon’s cynical strategy has produced consistent electoral wins in national contests for the Republicans in most southern states since that time. It came as no surprise that someone like Trump, previously largely politically agnostic, would opt to carry the Republican banner when he decided to enter elective politics.

The Virginia election played out on a surprising stage. Only very recently, after Barack Obama (twice) and Hillary Clinton carried the state, have national pundits begun to acknowledge this southern state is no longer reliably Republican. It is no longer the home to the segregationist Harry Byrd’s Democratic political machine, nor is it likely to represent a sure Republican victory in future national political elections. The state is now described by national commentators as purple – a mix of downstate (southern) red Republican strongholds and blue northern Virginia Democratic suburbanites.

As we commented in these pages during the summer, Virginia’s major party candidates both prevailed in primary elections over more radical contenders, from the Bernie Sanders leftist wing of the Democratic party and the alt-right wing of the Republican party. The Republican primary contender taunted eventual primary winner Ed Gillespie as “Establishment Ed”, mocking his centrist positions and his obvious and persistent unwillingness to embrace the exceptionally unpopular US chief executive. Gillespie prevailed by only about one percentage point in the primary. Democrat Northam had a much easier time, both in the primary and in the general election.

Democrats prevailed in competitive elections around the country, while scoring no major upsets. Many pundits are now forecasting a big Democratic electoral triumph next year. They will point to the recent history of the first bi-election going against a newly elected president. They will point to Trump’s persistently embarrassing behavioir and growing unpopularity. They will chronicle Trump’s many unfulfilled campaign promises, and increasing public disgust at the feckless and ineffective US Congress unable, with working majorities, to accomplish virtually anything.

But a year is a long time in politics.

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